By any standard, Elisha Marquez is a whiz kid.
Born in the Philippines, she’s been a straight-A’s student throughout her six years at , which closed for the summer Tuesday. Consider her achievements:
• She was valedictorian of her class in middle school.
• As a junior last year, she was among a handful of students who got an engineering internship at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab.
• She has been invited back to JPL for a six-week engineering stint, with a $3,000 stipend, starting this coming Monday, June 25.
• She recently won a scholarship through the prestigious Gates Millennium Scholars program, which is awarded to no more than 1,000 students nationwide.
• She has been accepted by various Ivy League universities, including Harvard, but has decided to go to Stanford, where she will get a full-tuition-paid scholarship.
It's no surprise that Marquez, 18, has a 4.50-weighted GPA—and her parents believe she should be the Class of 2012 Valedictorian at Eagle Rock High’s convocation ceremony, which will be held at the amphitheater on Wednesday, June 20.
But it turns out that another student, Jasmine Fernandez, will be getting that honor. Because Fernandez has a marginally higher GPA than Marquez—4.55—the school has ranked her first for graduation among more than 500 students, while giving Marquez the second-place Salutatorian award.
Parents Challenge the District
The decision, based purely on numbers, should be clear to most observers. But to Marquez’s parents, the picture is far more complicated. In a letter addressed to LAUSD District 4 Director Annick Draghi on March 8, Marquez’s father, Nelson Marquez, challenged the District’s class rank policies, which, he claimed, unfairly denied his daughter the top ranking in the Class of 2012.
Nelson Marquez’s main contention in the letter, a copy of which he provided to Patch, is that his daughter was not given the same opportunity that was available to Fernandez to take the optimum number of Advanced Placement classes while she was in the ninth grade.
The reason for that, according to Nelson Marquez, is that only ninth-grade students in the school’s Magnet program had an opportunity to take AP classes, which were not an option for his daughter because she was in the Gifted program.
“Apparently, undue advantage had already been given to Magnet students, and no matter what she did, she would not have been able to catch up,” Nelson Marquez wrote in his letter to Draghi. “My daughter requested AP classes in the ninth grade, and was unable to take any. She requested more than the two AP’s she had in the tenth grade, but was unable to take more.”
A Question of Equal Opportunity?
As a result, argues Nelson Marquez in his letter, his daughter “received an unequal educational opportunity from the start, which, under federal law, is a guaranteed right of every student.”
One particularly disadvantageous aspect of his daughter’s ninth-grade experience, Nelson Marquez told Patch, was her inability to take an AP class in Spanish—the only foreign language available to students in the grade. Because there were no preparatory classes leading to AP Spanish in the ninth grade, said Nelson Marquez, it would have been a severe handicap for his daughter to study a language she was unfamiliar with.
The other part of Nelson Marquez’s contention that his daughter was unfairly denied the Valedictorian position has to do with the LAUSD’s practice of calculating graduating students’ GPAs based on the grades achieved in the first semester of the 12th year rather than after the second—and last—semester. (The first semester cutoff is aimed at enabling students to apply for admission to colleges and universities.)
First Semester Versus Second Semester
In an April 3 letter addressed to the California Department of Education’s Office of Equal Opportunity, Nelson Marquez argued that if scores from both semesters are taken into account, his daughter and the designated Valedictorian would have the same GPA, effectively tying them for the Class of 2012’s top honor.
“With the early cutoff that the school enforces, all the opportunities she [Elisha] tried to create for herself became worthless,” Nelson Marquez wrote in his two-page letter to California Department of Education, adding: “Where is the equality of opportunity in that?”
For its part, the California Department of Education responded to Nelson Marquez in a May 24 letter, stating that it has no authority to say anything in the matter because Marquez did not allege any protected group had been discriminated against based on race, gender, national origin, sexual orientation or disability.
“They're not alleging discrimination, which is one basis very important in order for us to have any authority,” Sharon Felix-Rochon, director in the California Department of Education's Office of Equal Opportunity, told Patch, adding: "We found that there is no evidence at all of any violation and that the District acted appropriately."
The Stress of High Achievement
Elisha’s mother, Carol Marquez, told Patch that her daughter took as many as six AP classes in the last semester, frequently arriving at school for zero period at 7 a.m. “That’s why she’s so stressed out,” she said. “And she did it for nothing.”
Carol Marquez likens the first semester cutoff to a basketball game in which the results of the last quarter are not counted. When she posed the issue to LAUSD’s Draghi in a teleconference, says Carol, Draghi replied that the issue isn’t about a student’s total grades but rather about timing. (Dr. Draghi did not return several phone calls from Patch to confirm this account, although Patch did speak to her boss, Dale Vigil.)
“What is a Valedictorian?” asks Carol rhetorically. “The highest-achieving student in the whole school throughout the year—or the highest-achieving student in just the first semester?”
Jan Davis, administrative coordinator for high school programs at LAUSD, confirmed that it has been District policy since 2004 to have a cutoff date before the second semester.
“Prior to 2004, schools determined their own policy regarding Valedictorian,” Davis told Patch, explaining that she remembers how Venice High School resorted to its own discretion in the matter when she worked there years ago. Added Davis: “If she [Marquez] feels she didn’t have enough opportunity to take AP classes, she would have to take up the matter with the school.”
According to ERHS Principal Salvador Velasco, however, Marquez as well as her parents were “well aware there were other opportunities for AP courses for her to be able to match” Fernandez’s grades.
“They were aware, and they had the opportunity, so they had both—awareness and opportunity,” Velasco said, emphasizing that Elisha Marquez could have stepped up her AP classes in the 10th and 11th grades if she felt there weren’t enough opportunity to take AP classes in the ninth grade.
“There’s no discrepancy, no favoritism—every child has the opportunity to take AP classes,” Dale Vigil, LAUSD’s superintendent for District 4, told Patch. Added Vigil: “I spoke at length with the father [Nelson Marquez] and we respect the principal’s position to have just one valedictorian.”
And how do the Salutatorian’s parents feel about that? “It is what it is,” concedes Nelson Marquez, stoically, adding: “Anyway, she got the Gates Millennium Scholarship.”
The Marquez family isn't giving up, however. Nelson and Carol are waiting for the final-semester transcripts, which will be released after graduation, and which they expect will almost surely favor their daughter. "We'll sue the LAUSD and ask them, 'okay, can you now make the final ranking?'" says Carol. "We just want to prove them wrong."